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Getting Back to Their Roots

Chef Eyal Shani’s theatrics are his signature at his three Tel Aviv restaurants. He has been known to serve food on pieces of cardboard, instead of plates, and without silverware. His menus are lyrical descriptions of his food, with dishes like top-end shwarma meat marinated in local grape juice and drizzled with tangy tahini, or shrimp with aioli stuffed in an artisanal house-made pita. He wants diners to eat with their hands, to share in the familiar sensory experience of the way food was eaten in the region throughout the millennia.

Street Fare: Haim Cohen prepares a meal of updated Israeli street food at the James Beard Houses. Image by Erin Gleeson

“He took this traditional food and he flipped it,” said Israeli food writer Naama Shefi, about Shani’s embrace of Israeli street foods and his reformation of the dishes from a simpler past. Shani is representative of an interesting moment in Israeli culinary history in which the fanciest of ingredients and technique are paired with menus that take their cues from the young nation’s earliest years. Israeli cooking is finding shape and a confidence in its local ingredients and its own food culture.

Until recently, Israeli cuisine was hard to pin down, little more than an awkward melding of home-cooked foods from the Jewish Diaspora and street foods, while chefs looked longingly toward France or America or even the Far East for its fine dining culture.

In Israel, a socialist country that went through major food rationing during its founding decades, food was very simple, and the best dishes were found in the home. “Let’s face it,” said Yisrael Aharoni, one of Israel’s foremost chefs and food television personalities. “We really had more serious issues to deal with than fine dining.”

It wasn’t until the late 1970s, and even more in the ’80s and ’90s, that Israeli diners began traveling abroad, tasting foods in Western Europe and Southeast Asia and craving those foods back home. Israeli chefs answered by opening Asian, Italian and French restaurants.

Now chefs are looking inward, to the roots of their country’s short culinary history, for menu ideas.

Haim Cohen, one of Israel’s top chefs, is obsessing over nostalgic foods and local ingredients, turning out dishes like labaneh-filled tortellini with za’atar. Shani is dressing up and modernizing classic Israeli street fare, and in Jerusalem, a trio of chefs reinvent their menu daily from whatever produce is available in a century-old market located across the street.

In the early 1990s, Cohen became known as a pioneer when he mixed haute French fare inflected with his family’s Turkish-Kurdish heritage at his restaurant, Keren. “This was the moment,” Cohen said, “a great moment for me in my career, and really the seed of the Israeli kitchen, because I used the eggplant like my mother and mixed it with lamb and shrimp, and suddenly the food gets a local flavor.”

He closed Keren nearly 10 years ago. This October he will open Jaffa Tel Aviv, a restaurant representing the balance of flavors and cultures of his childhood, like those of Jaffa, and the cosmopolitan Mediterranean flavors of Tel Aviv.

Last year, Cohen cooked a dinner at the James Beard House in New York that explored the concept of high-end Israeli street food and elevated iconic Israeli ingredients like hummus, and prepared it with seared calamari. He also reinterpreted the ubiquitous boreka snack by stuffing it with crabmeat.

Amuse-Bouche: Creamy labaneh-filled tortellini are topped with za?atar and olive oil at Cohen?s dinner at the James Beard House. Image by Erin Gleeson

Shani, who like Cohen is a judge on the Israeli TV version of Master Chef, echoes similar ideas in his cuisine. “If you go to Miznon,” Shefi says of Shani’s newest restaurant, “you can really see what is Israeli food. Now you can differentiate it from street food in Lebanon or Egypt, while 10 years ago it was kind of the same. We took a lot of inspiration from our neighbors, but we mixed it with our multiple Jewish traditions.”

Shani’s interpretation, direct and bold, centers on an obsession with the raw ingredients that have become centerpieces of Israeli dinners. Shani’s work promoting simple and local ingredients has had a “major influence on new Israeli cuisine,” according to Ronit Vered, a food columnist for Haaretz.

The essence of Shani’s restaurants — Salon, Abraxas North and Miznon — is a pared-down simplicity inspired aesthetically by street food, both a selling point and a major criticism of his food. Shani implicitly conjures up a minimalist socialist heritage in his presentation, with his unadorned plating (and actual lack of plates) and focus on the raw ingredients in dishes like roasted baby cauliflower, which practically melts into itself. At Miznon, he serves Shokolad Hashachar, an Israeli chocolate spread popular with children, in a pita with caramelized banana slices, providing a grown-up take on the classic.

Shani’s deference to exceptional local produce is shared so wholeheartedly by a trio of Jerusalem chefs that not only did they open their restaurant across the street from the iconic Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, but they assumed a form of its name as well.

Chefs Asaf Granit, Uri Navon and Yossi Elad opened MahaneYuda together in 2009, basing their menus on the availability of produce in their backyard, changing their menu sometimes as often as twice a day.

“We are looking for inspiration from the past, but still, we remember where we are coming from and trying to have traditional dishes in the menu as well,” said Elad. He pointed to dishes like frikke, a smoked wheat from the Galilee that he said Abraham ate. Entrees highlighting Israeli flavors, such as sea bream from the Red Sea on chickpea salad, served with yogurt, make an appearance. Hamshuka, tahini mixed with yogurt instead of the traditional water, is served with harissa, amba and pickled lemon over beef mixed with lamb. But only within the last five years, Elad says, could he have opened such a restaurant and achieved success, hinting at the larger change in Israel’s approach to food.

By harkening to its culinary past, these chefs are helping Israel find its own voice and palate within the broader culinary canon. However, almost all chefs agree that Israeli food is at an exciting stage with change lying ahead, and is still far from being fully defined. “We’re still a small country,” said Cohen. “We still get immigrants from Ethiopia. We still have a future that we don’t know what will be.”

Jeffrey Yoskowitz writes about food, politics and culture. He lives in New York City, though has also lived in Israel, where he visits and tries new foods regularly.

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